After crossing the highest along route 3 at Abra la Raya, you find yourself in the Vilcanota River Valley. The Vilcanota ultimately becomes the Urubamba River which flows through the Sacred Valley and around Machu Picchu. These are the headwaters of one of the most significant rivers in the Andes. The Urubamba eventually empties into the Amazon.
The first major site along the way is the Temple of Viracocha at Raqchi. Viracocha was the creator deity of the Incas. Viracocha was said to have originated from the depths of Lake Titicaca to create the world. While traveling north from Lake Titicaca, he stopped in Raqchi where he was insulted by the local Canas people. He got mad and decided to rain fire down upon the Canas. The fire apparently came from the local volcano, Kinsachata, which still has black volcanic rock on its sides. The Canas must have been thoroughly impressed by this demonstration since they ultimately became loyal subjects to the Inca and built a statue to honor Virachocha. Over time, this statue became the focal point of successive temples to Viracocha, ultimately culminating in one of the largest buildings in the Inca Empire, the Temple of Viracocha at Raqchi.
The remains of the temple at Raqchi are very imposing. The temple complex would have dominated the Vilacnota River valley. The last incarnation of the site was built by Huayna Capac, the last Inca emperor to rule a united empire.
The overall site is nearly 200 acres. A 2 mile long wall that runs along the hills encloses the site.
The most impressive of the ruins is the central wall of the the temple. Sitting out on the plain, it resembles a Roman aqueduct. The wall is 39 feet tall. The first 9 feet are made of finely worked Inca masonry. The base of the wall is reminiscent of the quality of stonework on palaces and temples in other Inca estates along the Vilcanota/Urubamba River in Pisac and Ollantaytambo.
What sets this site apart from other ruins is the vertical scale of the wall. The upper 30 feet of the central wall is made of adobe. Today it is capped with tiles to preserve the adobe. Originally it would have supported a pitched roof that would have covered 25,000 square feet, making it one of the largest canchas, or halls, built by the Incas.
A series of 11 circular columns on either side of the wall helped to support the roof. The circular columns at Raqchi are quite rare in Inca architecture. As with the central wall, the base was made of finely worked stone and was topped with adobe. There is only one remaining intact column.
The Inca chronicler, Garcilaso de la Vega described the interior of the temple as being like a labyrinth. Visitors would walk in a zigzag pattern through the openings in the central wall and the circular columns ultimately arriving at the statue of Viracocha. The Spanish, seeing the temple as an affront to the church, ended up destroying the temple and statue.
Just to the east of the Temple of Viracocha is what was likely a residential area. The construction of the back to back buildings mirrors the temple itself, with each building having a large central wall that divides each structure into two symmetrical dwellings. Like the temple they are made of stone at the base with taller adobe walls on top.
South of the residential sector is a series of 80 circular structures that were probably used for storage. Circular architecture like this is uncommon in typical Inca architecture. Archaeologists Bill Silar and Emily Dean believe that these structures were built by the pre-Inca Huari-Tiahuanaco culture.
There is a swampy area that was once a reflecting pool near the entrance to the temple. This is consistent with the design of complexes built under Huayna Capac's rule. There were similar pools on his estate in Urubamba.
When the Incas conquered the Canas people, they incorporated the Canas beliefs and holy sites, ultimately putting their own spin on it. Raqchi became a mythical stop on Viracocha's journey from Lake Titicaca to Cusco. They built the temple complex in the heartland of the Canas and made them a key part of the Inca empire.
The Spaniards attempted to do the same thing. They saw a resemblance between the statue of Viracocha and Saint Bartholomew. They encouraged the natives to take Bartholomew as their patron saint. Like the Inca, the Spanish would often construct their churches on the foundations of Inca holy sites in an effort to co-opt the sites.
A town four miles up the road from Raqchi, San Barolomeo de Tinta, was named for Saint Bartholomew. Tinta ended up being the base of Tupac Amaru II's rebellion against the Spanish that tore through the Andes in 1780, ultimately threatening Spanish Colonial rule. Amaru was finally captured and taken to the main plaza in Cusco where we was drawn and quartered.
Much of the background for this post came from Susan Niles' The Shape of Inca History: Narrative and Architecture in an Andean Empire and John Hemming and Edward Ranney's Monuments of the Incas